A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 

 

Rank: # 8

 

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL jjjj

2007, PG-13, 116 mins.

 

Lars: Ryan Gosling / Karin: Emily Mortimer / Gus: Paul Schneider / Dagmar: Patricia Clarkson / Margo: Kelli Garner / Holly: Lauren Ash / Mrs. Gruner: Nancy Beatty

Directed by Craig Gillespie / Written by Nancy Oliver.

LARS AND THE REAL girl has to be one of the most absurd films that I have ever seen.  Itís also a little engine that could miracle: The fact that it rises far, far above its ludicrous and asinine premise and becomes a touching, sad, and definitively Capra-esque small town parable of goodwill is to is esteemed credit. 

There is no doubt that there will be people that leave the theatre after seeing this film that will either passionately despise it or intensely love it.  I can say with honesty that I cherished just about every moment in the film.

How could I, you wonder?  This is a movie, after all, that is about a chronicled introverted and mentally disturbed small town man and his relationship with...a sex doll.  Yes...a sex doll.  In the wrong hands, LARS AND THE REAL GIRL could have been a disaster of biblical proportions.  Certainly, the sheer lunacy its premise, it could be argued, might not have filled up the laugh track of a five minute sketch on late night TV.  Yet, LARS AND THE REAL GIRL overcomes all odds and expectations by becoming something rich and endearing: The film is about despair, loneliness, and how good will and genuine human kindness can combat it.  Although Frank Capra may not have ever used a sex toy in any of his films to help sell a message, if alive today he would most assuredly be proud of this filmís daring and potentially troublesome methodology.

Not only that, but LARS AND THE REAL GIRL is completely held together by yet another commanding and quietly powerful performance by the Canadian-born Ryan Gosling.  After his work in one of last yearís best films, HALF NELSON, I was growing convinced that he was emerging as one of the most seasoned and disciplined actors of his generation.  Now, after seeing is extraordinary turn in LARS, playing a character that could have deviated in every wrong direction, I believe, more than ever, that Gosling has fully encapsulated himself with the acting elite.  Like the Brando's and De Niroís before him, his work here not only makes him stand out, but he also allows just about everyone around him to be much better.

Gosling plays Lars Lidstrom, a young, socially paralyzed man, so paralyzed that he does not allow any human contact of any kind...emotional nor physical.  If you give him so much as a touch on the shoulder, he squirms and flees like a kid would from a bee.  His mother died tragically years ago and his distraught father years after that, and this may or may not have contributed to his people phobia.  The family home is now occupied by his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and his pregnant wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) while Lars lives a life of completely solitude and isolation in the garage.  He gets up, drives to work, comes home, and sits on his bed, alone in the dark.  Karin and Gus try everything humanly possible to get Lars to come out and spend time with them.  Even tackling him to the ground and begging him (literally) does not work.

Lars is so insanely shy that he canít even spot the cute advancements of an adorable co-worker, Margo (Keli Garner), who gives him so many obvious hints of her crush on him that even a blind man could see them.  His work life is not helped by one his annoying co-workers, an adult trapped in a boyís body: He adorns his office desk with rare action figures and views internet porn.  One day he stumbles on a site that offers life-sized sex dolls that are as real as they come.  They can be ordered to any manís customized dreams; the ones offered have names, date of births, a complete history, and even a personality profile.  Of course, they are also anatomically correct so that you can...well...you know.

Lars shrugs this off with his sort of typical soft-spokenness.  Days of normalcy go by and then one day Karin calls him at work and tells him that a huge wooden crate has arrived for him at his garage.  Larsí eyes light up and he races home.  We then see him clean himself up, dresses nicely, and then goes to see Karin and Gus.  He invites himself over for dinner, but only if he can bring his new friend.

Bianca.

Bianca, as you may have guessed, is not real.  Sheís a vinyl sex doll.  To Lars, she is anything but fake and he rigidly and consistently treats her as if a living, breathing woman.  His delusion goes as far as to explain everything about her: She is a Brazilian with Danish blood (which explains why she canít speak much English and why Lars has to translate for her), a paraplegic (which helps explain her not walking), a missionary (sheís a woman with a heart of gold beyond her super model looks), and sheís, of course, a really kind woman that truly cares for Lars.  Predictably, when first introduced to Gus and Karin, it's one of 2007's most uproariously funny and preposterous moments, all played with pitch perfect timing.

Gus and Karin act exactly as any would if a relative brought over a new "girlfriend" and found out she was a doll.  Whatís amazing about the film is how director Craig Gillepsie (MR. WOODCOCK) and writer Nancy Oliver (TVíS SIX FEET UNDER) never take the film in predicable directions after this initial encounter with the doll.  Gus, of course, wants nothing more that to institutionalize his brother.  I mean, Lars is crazy...right?  Karin is not quite so sure.  For the first time she sees a twinkle in Larsí eyes and a care free energy in his step.  Robbing him of his time of happiness and security could ruin him more than putting him in a hospital.

This begs the question: Is Lars a loon or just an emotionally misguided man that yearns for affection?  Perhaps a bit of both.  I think that what Karin sees in Bianca is the first natural step for Lars to make on the ladder towards normal social comfort.  Since Lars canít stand the feeling of human contact (he describes it as a burn that goes away when someone stops), a doll is a logical substitute.  And Lars is such a good natured, sweet, and kind hearted soul: He treats Bianca like any woman would want to be.  He takes her everywhere (and I mean everywhere): To the mall, to the beauty parlor, to Church...anywhere and everywhere.  The key here is that Lars canít handle human contact (yet), so Bianca is his portal.  Importantly, he never once (at least on screen) uses her for...let's say...the doll's advertised usages.  She may come equipped for sex, but Lars respects her too much for that.  She is a confidant first and a sex slave a very distant second.

Now, how do the other townsfolk see Bianca?  Thatís another one of the filmís subtle miracles.  Gus and Karin convince Lars to take Bianca to see Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), the town doctor and...psychiatrist.  They tell Lars that Bianca looks ill and the Doctor does treat her, but she uses this opportunity to study Lars even more.  She schedules weekly appointments and initially comes to the realization that everyone around Lars, from his family to the rest of the town, must help maintain his illusions of security.  He is delusional, but his delusion will only help him get better.

And thatís just what the town does.  As shocking and mortifying as it is to them, the whole town greets Bianca with open arms and affection and treats her as if Lars would.  She even goes as far as to join prominent town clubs and serves on school boards.  Whatís so enchanting about the film is the insatiable level of charity and goodwill that the film is painted in.  It could have been so easy to make everyone treat Lars like a freak, but the way the town and his family step up and help the trouble man is uplifting and affectionate.  What could have become a wretched comedy of sitcom contrivances instead becomes a richly emotional and whimsical Capra parable about goodwill. 

The film is hilarious, donít misunderstand me, and the funniest moments are all of the double takes that ensue with Biancaís appearances, but this is a film too gentle natured to treat its subject with disdain and mockery.  The filmmakers avoid any tawdriness and smut value that could have been added to a story involving a manís love for his sex doll.  Bianca, as the film continues, becomes less a flimsy object of sexual satisfaction and more an important conduit to Larís social re-awakening.  She becomes a crucial character.

The key to all of this is Gosling, who utterly transports himself - and viewers - into the wounded psyche of this man.  His performance is as perfect as any Iíve seen.  He never over-reaches for a cheap laugh or methodically tugs on our collective heartstrings for a tear.  He inhabits every moment of this truly weird film with a sincere sensitivity and earnestness.  His performance is a textbook exercise in finding the right pitch and tone and sticking with it.  He has such a vigorous, understated strength, an attribute I find myself repeated when writing about many of his performances, but just look at how in occupies scene after scene without any grandstanding of one-upmanship.  He manages to make Lars a man easy to love, chastise, and pity all at the same time.  More crucially, he is able to conjure Larís innate fragility throughout the film, which ultimately makes him someone to emotional invest in despite the odd premise. Much Like what Peter Sellers did with a similar mentally challenged character in BEING THERE, Gosling makes this character complex despite his simplicity and condition.  How Gosling does not get a second straight Oscar nomination for LARS AND THE REAL GIRL is beyond me.

The other performances, I think, are almost as artful.  Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider have the difficult task of playing their responses to the weirdness that ensues with an equal parts straight faced approach with complete, awestruck  incredulity.  Schneider, in particular, has the difficult task of displaying his concern and love from his brother as well as being severely haunted by his behaviour; he hits all the right beats and marks here, and never becomes a stereotypical antagonist in the film.  Patricia Clarkson also gives fine supporting work as is arguably the most tender person in the film: she has to see past that preposterousness of Larsí new girlfriend and instead offers him kindness and support instead of ridicule.

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL is one of the rarest filmgoing experiences imaginable.  It takes a premise that could have been butchered and destroyed in weaker hands and played up for sick laughs and instead becomes a warm and emotionally strong work about one manís odd battle with disparity with the world and how own decent and affable town comes to his rescue.  While watching the film a disturbing thought always occurred: Imagine if a comedian (like, say...Adam Sandler) got his hands on this material. He could have perverted and manipulated it for every kind of perceived sensationalistic sight gag and pratfall.  Thank God...thank God Almighty...that LARS AND THE REAL GIRL did not careen off in that direction.  It demonstrates how smart direction, an inquisitive and sly screenplay, and a towering lead performance can strip away a premiseís luridness and silliness and make it grand and inspired.  I would have to be a nutjob to say that this story about a man and his life-sized sex doll with anatomically correct orifices is not one of the best films of 2007. 

After the miracle that it achieves...it just has to be.

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